Purchase age for alcohol remains at 18

TRACY NEAL
Last updated 12:56 31/08/2012

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A bid to return the drinking age to 20 has been lost on technical matters linked to the voting format, Nelson MP Nick Smith said today.

Parliament last night voted down attempts to either raise the drinking age back to 20 or introduce a split age of 18 in bars and clubs and 20 in off-licenses, in a rare three-way vote.

Dr Smith, who initially voted for a split purchase age and then to keep the alcohol purchase age at 18, was today "very disappointed" his initial preference was unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, Nelson-based Labour list MP Maryan Street and West Coast-Tasman Labour MP Damien O'Connor, who also initially supported the split purchase age, and then voted to raise it to 20, were today concerned that the Government's Alcohol Reform Bill will end up being watered down to nothing.

The drinking age was the only conscience vote in the wider bill and the Government is expected to vote down 17 amendments by Labour and the Greens which include introducing a minimum pricing regime, restrict alcohol advertising and attaching warning labels, following advice from the Justice Ministry.

Dr Smith said indications were that a majority of parliamentarians supported extra restrictions on 18-year-olds being able to purchase alcohol, but the voting format led to the result.

In the final run-off between 18 and 20, MPs voted to keep the age at 18 by 68 votes to 53.

His decision to support the status quo was linked to 18 being the age of entitlement for many things.

"Lifting the drinking age to 20 is unrealistic when 18-year-olds are able to serve their country in the army, vote, get married and enter into contracts."

Dr Smith believed young people today were more responsible with alcohol than previous generations, and that New Zealand's alcohol problem went "well beyond" 18 and 19-year-olds.

Ms Street said her decision to support raising the age to 20 was on health grounds.

"Every piece of advice I received from health professionals said to put the age up to 20," Ms Street said.

She felt there were plenty of other mechanisms in the Alcohol Reform Bill that were not addressed strongly enough by the Government.

"If the Government is prepared to actually do something, if not about the drinking age but about the other things that matter, we might end up with a bill that means something."

Mr O'Connor was concerned the Government would now water down the bill so much it would amount to nothing, and the huge amount of effort by the Law Commission and numerous ministers would go unheeded.

"I voted to raise the age to 20 as one measure to try to reduce harm from alcohol in our society.

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"Not for a moment do I think it's the most important measure, but it's one of a number of things that need to happen," Mr O'Connor said.

The bill is still making its way through Parliament and has been criticised by health advocates for not doing enough to change New Zealand's drinking culture.

Prime Minister John Key was one of 33 MPs who voted for a split age.

He did not believe raising the age back to 20 made sense.

The Government would not move to adopt a minimum pricing regime now the age change had failed, he confirmed. "Parliament can always revisit this issue in years to come."

Alcohol Action New Zealand spokesman Doug Sellman today said there was a mood for change but the Alcohol Reform Bill was not going to achieve it.

"Until we do something about the excessive commercialisation of alcohol in New Zealand, we are going to continue to have a heavy drinking culture," he said.

He said change did not come through education or empty rhetoric.

"Just like tobacco, we do need Parliament to lead with some new and bold legislation and that is what is missing in the bill at the current time."

West Coast-Tasman National List MP Chris Auchinvole could not be reached for comment.

- The Nelson Mail

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